This time last year Melbourne played host to one of the most iconic highlight reel knockouts in MMA history. Against all the odds Holly Holm destroyed the mystique of Ronda Rousey in front of a record breaking crowd in a showcase event for the UFC.
Twelve months on and the Octagon makes only its second appearance in the Victorian capital but in far less spectacular fashion than its inaugural event. An unfortunate injury to top middleweight Luke Rockhold forced an exciting main event against Jacare Souza to be scratched to the dismay of the fight world.
However, the rescheduled headline bout of fellow middleweight prospects Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson is an important fight that seems to be flying under the radar.
Robert Whittaker (MMA record: 17-4)
Robert Whittaker is currently the #7 ranked middleweight in the world and is Australia’s top prospect in MMA. At the tender age of 25, Whittaker is nowhere near his prime yet but still has a wealth of experience inside the cage with over 20 fights.
Currently riding a five-fight win streak, Whittaker is a prime example of a fighter reaping the benefits of moving up a weight class in lieu of detrimental weight cutting. Originally a welterweight, Whittaker has flourished since fighting at a more natural weight and is much more at home at 185 pounds. He debuted on ‘The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes’, where he eventually went on to take the welterweight crown. His last defeat was nearly three years ago at the hands of Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson during his phenomenal run to his title shot.
Nicknamed ‘The Reaper’, Whittaker possesses some serious power in his striking despite his relatively small stature for the division. A black belt in Karate from a young age, the New Zealand-born Whittaker showcases excellent movement that is only usually associated with fighters of this discipline. Explosiveness and a capacity to manipulate distance superbly gives Whittaker the ability to leap in, catch his opponent and get out of range unscathed.
The official UFC website probably best describes his skill breakdown when it says, “Unorthodox striking”. The Sydney-based fighter possesses a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and can also boast one of the best takedown defence percentages of any division with an astonishing 93% of takedown attempts avoided.
Whittaker’s most impressive victory is certainly his vicious first round KO of the highly rated Brad Tavares. One of the most dangerous weapons in his arsenal is the disguised left hook, be it leading or as a counter. In this particular fight Tavares avoided the first left hook but was not so fortunate the second time as ‘The Reaper’ camouflages it so well with either a feint or a high kick. A follow up of pinpoint ground and pound made short work of the betting favourite that night.
Perhaps what’s arguably more impressive is Whittaker’s ability to get the W over completely different stylistic opponents. His last two victories came against top level opposition in Uriah Hall and super experienced veteran Rafael Natal. Earning unanimous victories in both fights, Whittaker put on a dominant performance over one of the UFC’s trickiest and most unorthodox opponents in Hall and fought with an injured right hand for the majority of his bout with the ridiculously tough Natal.
These two performances showed a new level of maturity to his fighting capabilities and certainly demonstrated his emergence as a serious contender.
Derek Brunson (MMA record: 16-3)
Derek Brunson is currently sitting one place behind his opponent in the rankings at the #8 spot. A native of North Carolina, Brunson trains out of the world renowned Jackson’s MMA gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico under the tutelage of masterminds Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn.
A relatively late bloomer in the world of MMA, Brunson is 32 years old but only began fighting at the age of 26. He possesses a strong collegiate wrestling background and is a three-time division two All-American champion. Brunson is also riding an impressive current win streak of five victories.
The masses would regard Brunson’s fighting style as heavily wrestling-based but that is an unfair statement and his striking does not get enough respect. Four first round KO/TKOs in his last four fights should cement this claim. A southpaw fighter, Brunson is blessed with a menacing left hand that has been as destructive as Conor McGregor’s Celtic cross lately.
Brunson almost tricks his opponents into thinking the fight will be played at a slow pace before suddenly erupting with a level change that displays his formidable wrestling background. ‘Rock em Sock em’ Brunson holds an immaculate 100 per cent takedown defence record. He likes to back his opponents up against the cage before unleashing a whirlwind of lefts and rights that simply overwhelms his opponents.
As he is not the biggest guy in the world the true power from his straight left is coming from the fact that he is sitting down on his punch perfectly, the same technique that Michael Bisping claims helped him become a champion. The balance between the lethal left hand and calculated wrestling has proved nothing but successful for Brunson.
It’s quite hard to pick out Brunson’s most impressive victory lately as his last four fights have been almost identical. He has been starching everyone so easily and barely getting touched in the process. Against a bigger man in Sam Alvey, Brunson immediately overpowered his opponent against the cage and teed off with relentless lefts and rights until Alvey could take no more.
An even more superb victory preceded that with a 36-second KO of Ed Herman thanks to a left hand blitzing. Roan Carneiro lasted significantly longer but still stood no chance against an unstoppable barrage of ground and pound after a costly slip. His most recent victim, Uriah Hall, was felled with one crisp connection from the straight left.
Brunson also holds notable wins over Chris Leben and striking phenom Lorenz Larkin. Couple these victories with the fact that his two most recent losses were to Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza and it is obvious to see that Brunson is certainly knocking on the door of the elite middleweights.
What have they been saying?
Both men believe they are the superior stand up fighter but Whittaker has promised to send Brunson back to his wrestling roots (via the Sydney Morning Herald).
“He’s not going to stand and trade with me. I mean I hope he does, I really do, but trust me when I say ill bring the wrestler out in him. I’ve done these standing battles time and time again and that’s where I’m comfortable.
“That’s my world and if he wants to come into my backyard then let’s see. I’m faster than all the opponents he’s fought, I move differently and I hit harder.”
Brunson is approaching the fight with caution but is convinced he’s the superior competitor in all aspects (via Fox Sports)
“I think the guy is well rounded, no weaknesses per se, but I just think I’ll be able to exploit him in certain areas, I think I can exploit him in grappling, I think I can exploit him on the feet… I’m not discrediting his skill set but I know my skill set and my abilities.”
This is a close fight to call and both fighters are so evenly matched on numerous levels. Similar amounts of fights, resembling similar amount of wins and losses, both on a five-fight win streak, much the same takedown defence percentage, both purple belts in jiu-jitsu, each are big hitters and neither have headlined a fight card before.
A big issue here is going to be the level of conditioning as this was originally scheduled to be a three-round fight. I question Brunson’s cardio reverting back to his loss to Yoel Romero and also the fact that he risks punching himself out if he goes for the kill early.
Hometown support could play a pivotal role in this fight as Whittaker will look to draw energy from the roaring Melbourne crowd. Brunson has a four-inch reach advantage but Whittaker works distance extremely well. If Whittaker can apply constant forward pressure like that of Nate Diaz or Tony Ferguson, whilst avoiding the takedown, he can win this fight as Brunson is not nearly as effective fighting backwards.
Once again I use the Romero defeat as my example here. Brunson is the bookies’ slight favourite heading into this fight and if he can land that ferocious left hand it should be over but I’m picking Whittaker to upset the odds here and land a stoppage in the championship rounds.
This is a very important fight for a division that is widely regarded as being seriously weak at the moment. The lack of depth in the middleweight roster is arguably what led to this match-up in the first place as Brunson is on a very quick turnaround having just fought in September. Before this bout was announced the only realistic opponent in the top ten for Whittaker to fight next was Anderson Silva and coming off of his recent losses would that win have even elevated the Aussie?
Both Whittaker and Brunson have ties to the next title match up between Michael Bisping and Yoel Romero. ‘The Reaper’ was supposed to fight current champion Bisping this time last year in Melbourne at UFC 193 so he feels he has unfinished business with the Briton.
Brunson is eager to avenge his loss to the Cuban Romero, who he feels he dominated for the majority of their fight and questions his PED use for that contest.
This is now the time for relative unknowns Whittaker and Brunson to stake their claim for elite status in the middleweight division. Both men know they are possibly one fight away from a title shot so after taking all of this into consideration this fight should be appearing on your radar right about now.
David O’Donovan, Pundit Arena